How Responsible Can Social Media Really Be?

In the last couple of days, there has been a significant amount of press coverage concerning the sick threats of rape that have been made initially to Caroline Criado-Perez following her successful campaign to have women appear on paper monetary notes and then the subsequent similar sick messages being sent to Shadow Crime Minister Stella Creasy – who backed Caroline’s campaign. The common denominator? Twitter. Twitter was the medium used by these ‘trolls’ as the means to convey their grossly offensive messages.

The public outcry that ensued against Twitter was ground breaking, with not only news coverage but also online petitions being created and more recently, the murmurings of perhaps a government select committee being convened to discuss this topic.

But one has to ask – who really is to blame here? Surely Twitter, Facebook and other Social Media platforms cannot be expected to shoulder all the responsibility. It is reported this morning that Twitter has accepted that they ‘may have failed’ in the way in which they have responded to being informed of grossly offensive tweets of this nature. Twitter’s head of safety, Del Harvey said: “I think that any time that someone feels we weren’t responsive, or weren’t reactive or we didn’t care then, yes, we failed in that instance and we need to do better.”

Seriousy though, let’s put this in to perspective: Twitter are NOT saying that they are admitting to failing rape threatened women – as many news headlines are purporting. What they are saying is that if an individual felt that Twitter had not responded or reacted in these circumstances, then this was Twitter’s failure. What they are not saying is that they are sorry for these tweets being sent or that they are sorry for not taking them down or that they are sorry for not blocking these trolls, the moment these grossly offensive tweets were sent. And neither should they.

These sick tweets, as well as the tweets against disabled children, parents of children that have been killed or committed suicide and many many more are, rather sadly, a depiction of the dark, anti- social and destructive nature of the online community in which we live. We cannot blame social media for the inherent failings of our communities. Social media is a fantastic tool for communication and sharing of information but at the same time, it has provided certain twisted individuals a forum in which to communicate their sickening, disgusting and grossly offensive comments. Would I blame Twitter for this? No. No more than I would blame Facebook or Tmblr. I genuinely believe that within 30 minutes of this article being published, I, along with members of my firm, will receive some, if not many, grossly offensive messages from online trolls, but that will not force me off Twitter.

Awareness, and education is the only way in which these ‘trolls’ are actually going to be caught and brought to justice. The legislation exists, it is in place, and it is sufficient to deal with the harassment aspects of many of these comments. But the enormity of the internet and the anonymity that it can afford an individual, is what gives these worthless bullies the blind courage to say and do what they want. The addition of Twitter’s report abuse button is welcomed and it may make some difference – but to what practical degree, is questionable. The number of comments that may be found grossly offensive to some and not others, will be huge. Have Twitter actually thought about the administrative burden that they have placed upon themselves? All reported issues will need to be looked at and dealt with and with the huge numbers of reports of abuse likely to be filed, a quick turnaround is unlikely.

In any event, the mere fact that a ‘troll’s’ account can be closed or blocked by Twitter, only for that same individual to set up another account with a different identity in possibly under 15 minutes, is not even being considered .

I and my firm, together with the support of Lynda Bellingham, are campaigning for social media platforms to make it harder to open accounts with them: to ensure that social media users have a degree of transparency and accountability. Twitter and Facebook have to accept that what may have been their initial purpose in their creation ie a social networking tool, is very rapidly becoming exploited by idiots that see it as an easy way to torment and bully their victims – the majority of whom they do not even know. New barriers need to be created and new systems implemented. Simple steps such as having to enter credit card details, perhaps a small membership fee, having to disclose a telephone number to which a code would be sent to activate the account – such small and simple steps could potentially deter the sick individuals from opening accounts. I say ‘potentially’ as nothing with be a cast iron solution – but at least there will be some tangible obstacles in the way. If a ‘trolls’’ account was closed, the system should be able to log his contact details and credit card information and so if the same supplementary information was used, with a different name, the account would simply be automatically refused. Locking the troll out of his online playground may well be the only way to stop him or her from continuing their campaign of online abuse.

In the past few years, as a lawyer, I have seen a big shift in Facebook and Twitter’s attitude towards complying with our requests for information on accounts. There is more compliance and more co-operation and I thank them for this as it means that we can get on and do our job: protecting our clients and bringing their tormentors to justice.

Whilst the medium of the social media is being fine-tuned, in the meantime, my advice would be to tweet with caution, try not to ‘feed the trolls’ by replying or re-tweeting their comments as by doing so, you are playing right in to their hands. Report any offensive comments, both to the online forum and to the police if the harassment or abuse is constant and if the nature of the comment is libellous or harassing, seek legal advice.

Rupinder Bains

Managing Director

Pinder Reaux & Associates